BANGKOK -- Thailand's government has banned face mask makers in the country from exporting without permission, as it tries to meet surging demand driven by the new coronavirus outbreak.
The cabinet on Tuesday approved the ban, after which the Commerce Ministry took full control of retail prices, production volume, and the export and import of masks. The extraordinary step is aimed at shielding Thai consumers from hoarding, price spikes and shortages.
As a result, all 11 mask manufactures -- including foreign companies and joint ventures -- must send their entire output of around 35 million pieces per month to a designated distribution center at the ministry. From there they will be sent to hospitals and retailers.
Meanwhile, the country's Central Committee on Goods and Service Prices has set the retail price of standard hygienic masks at 2.50 baht (8 cents) per piece, after finding that some sellers were charging 40 to 50 baht per piece. Those who break the price cap face a maximum fine of 140,000 baht or seven years in jail.
The export ban "will be effective immediately. One hundred percent of mask production must be sent to our distribution center, so that we can monitor the situation closely to prevent hoarding," said Boonyarit Kalayanamit, permanent-secretary at the Ministry of Commerce.
The decision follows a rash of complaints from consumers, doctors and industry bodies such as the Private Hospital Association -- which groups 250 private hospitals across the country -- demanding action on the severe mask shortage in the country.
As of Wednesday, the Public Health Ministry reported that Thailand had 44 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including one new patient. One person has died of the disease, while 31 people have recovered and been discharged from hospitals. The remaining 12 patients are still hospitalized, one of whom is in serious condition.
Before the cabinet decision, the Commerce Ministry had allowed the export of up to 500 masks in a single consignment without approval. Larger exports required approval from the ministry.
However, some companies flouted the rules by exporting many lots of 499 masks each without permission, causing a domestic shortage that forced the government to step in.
In February alone, domestic producers asked for permission to export a combined 32 million masks, according to the ministry.
Domestic demand has risen sharply, from 25 million to 30 million pieces per month, to 40 million to 50 million pieces as fears of the epidemic have risen. Buyers have snapped up masks in stores, exacerbating the shortage.
The ministry ordered all 11 mask manufacturers to produce at full capacity. That will raise total output to around 38 million pieces a month, up from around 30 million to 32 million pieces, to meet demand.